This is the same question that lurked in the mind of Dan Brown when he gazed pensively at the portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous work of art in Louvre Museum, Paris, paving the way for the creation of his controversial book “Da Vinci Code”.
I don’t want to dwell on Brown’s work, I did not watch the film nor read the book, I hate the fact that he lampooned the Catholic religion. But just like him, I am also drawn with the secret behind the mysterious, enigmatic smile of Monalisa. What she'd been hiding down the centuries?
At the replica of the portrait of Monalisa - Puzzle Mansion, Tagaytay
Let’s start with the legend of the portrait.
Monalisa, probably the most written, most sung about and the most parodied work of art in the world, is a masterpiece of Leonardo Da Vinci, an Italian artist. But originally, Da Vinci did not name it Monalisa but “La Gioconda”. He started working on the painting around the 16th century but it was never finished until he went to France to work for King Francis I. He brought the unfinished painting with him and continued working until 1517. Monalisa thoroughly became a French possession and was never brought back to Italy.
People across generation were intrigued how Da Vinci came up with the portrait, who was the real subject? Was really she or he? Many versions had been reported as to who was the model in the portrait, the most well-known was Lisa Gherardini, wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Francesco del Giocondo. Others were women of noble birth: Isabella of Aragon and Costanza d’Avalos, Duchess of Francavilla, but many speculated, maybe out of creating further controversies, that the subject of the portrait was Da Vinci himself!
The obscurity of Monalisa's smile and the mysterious angle of her gaze made the painting the most celebrated work of art in the world!
How she was made?
Why Monalisa is so mysterious? Why she can be radiant one moment and obscure the next? According to studies, Da Vinci painted Monalisa in oil using the sfumato technique or the smoky effect with just his bare fingers as there were no brush marks visible on the painting. He applied almost 40 layers of thin glaze mixed with different pigments that create shadows around the mouth.
Da Vinci used a pyramid design, placing the subject sublimely in the space of the painting, against the backdrop of a countryside (my own speculation is a Tuscan landscape hehe) hands folded, face glowed in the same light with the hands, mouth arched in a bewitching angle, chin in a delicate tone and an enchanting gaze that intrigued scholars for ages. The degree of her gaze varied depending on how people look at the painting which made the image more mystifying.
Work of a Genius
Leonardo Da Vinci was a genius but even with his unique artistic skills and brilliant mind, he might have never thought he could create a masterpiece that would haunt generation across the centuries. Monalisa is not only a splendid, stunning piece of classical art but also a strange painting that manipulates vision.
According to scholars and art experts, Da Vinci achieved an unusual meticulous effect of art techniques because Mona Lisa’s smile changes the way people look at the painting. It spurs different expressions: subtle, charming, demure and ambiguous.
So, is Monalisa Smiling?
The answer is: No. Basically, the attitude of the way Da Vinci painted the girl personified sophistication bordering subtleness. The concept of "smile" is just an optical illusion and depends on how we look at the picture, where our gaze focuses and how far we are from the portrait, her supposed "smile" varies, but it's purely "illusion". When people look directly on the mouth and carefully move the stares up to her eyes, the smile disappears, why is this so?
According to one scientist, it is because our peripheral vision sees blurry images while our central vision sees fine details. Different cells in the retina transmit different categories of information or “channels’ to the brain. These channels encode data about an object’s size, clarity, brightness and location in the visual field. So the belief that Monalisa is smiling is just part of a spatial frequency perception within the mouth. Okay, that's according to the interpretations of researchers and scientists.
So how I looked at Monalisa?
When I visited Puzzle Mansion in Tagaytay last weekend and saw the replica of the portrait of Monalisa, I shortly studied her face, sort of an experiment, if the optical illusion they are referring is true. Of course this is not the original version so there might be some distortions on the contours of the painting and the details of the image might not be accurate anymore, nevertheless, I made some scrutiny on the image.
As I moved closer to the painting, I saw this strange effect of my gaze. I stared hard on her eyes and saw a far-away look expression, she seems serious and demure, but when my stare moved down to her mouth, an enigmatic smile reappeared. Her eyes are not fixed to the spectators as everyone believed but it threw off away to the other side as if looking the other way around.
Tired with my little experiment, I moved forward and left Monalisa haha! So there you go, the mystical existence of Da Vinci’s work of art.